In Search Of Evil

Please forgive me while I muse out loud about the nature of evil.  This piece is not meant to be about, for, or against, any particular religious view.  Most religions address the nature of evil and the human dimension of fighting it off.  In many religions, Satan, or a similar being, is the embodiment of evil. While I will muse about Satan, this is not intended to be a religious discussion.  Or at least I think not. Non-religious people certainly recognize and ponder the nature of evil.  It is more than just a religious concept.  Spoiler alert:  That said, I will write about God and Satan, among other approaches to trying to understand evil.  Stop reading if this is not your thing and you would rather not get into it.

With the nearly constant bombardment of video images depicting the actions of the Islamic State (or ISIS, or ISIL — all the same entity), one immediately thinks of that group as evil.  Adolf Hitler and his Nazi supporters were evil.  Josef Stalin was evil.  Pol Pot was evil.  Narco-terrorists are evil. The list could go on and on.

However, I wonder why, or perhaps more accurately, how, people become evil.  I do not think that it is in the nature of humankind to be evil.  My premise has been and continues to be that, given a chance, people are inherently good and will do the right thing.  Although this premise is tested daily, I still consider the vast majority of people to be good.  So what happens to the others?  I do not think that they were born evil.  Although there are psycho-paths and people lacking any empathy what-so-ever, I see their actions as more a matter for psychiatrists than necessarily a manifestation of the existence of evil, which still leaves some of their actions clearly defined as evil.  Nor do I excuse their behavior in any way, shape or form.  However, I do not think that most of what we see today, or historically, as evil actions in the name of nations or dictators is coming purely from mental disorders. Perhaps some, but not many.  It is too facile to say that they are all psychopaths.

On a Judeo-Christian religious level, most believe that God is the Supreme Being.  God knows all and as the Creator, by definition, created everything in the universe.  God would not create Satan.  In the Old Testament (such as in the Book of Job) God sometimes sends Satan to do his bidding — in this case to test Job. If Satan exists, it is not as an equal to God.  How can there be an equal competition between good and evil — manifested as God versus Satan — for the souls of mankind?  There cannot.  God is all-powerful. He is not going to lose to Satan in any endeavor.

To me, Satan stands as a symbol of free will.  We have the curse and the gift of determining our own destiny.  It is a human decision as to whether or not to do the right thing.  When humans choose the wrong path, evil deeds occur.  So do our historical evil doers choose to be evil or are they on some other path?  I am not sure.  To some degree, it depends on which side of history one sits.  As has been written many times, the winner dictates the history.  In war, evil things happen on both sides. From other cultures’ perspectives the United States has done evil things.  Did we choose to do evil?  I say no we did not.  Either we were ignorant of the consequences of certain actions, or as a nation we decided that certain actions were necessary to achieve our goals.  Is it possible that Hitler, Stalin, and others, including the current leaders of the Islamic State were not born evil?  Is it possible that their actions were, and are, in the pursuit of what they consider to be a greater good and thereby necessary? If they wrote the history would they depict their actions as evil?  Are people evil or are their actions evil?  Does it matter?  I am no expert.  And I am no apologist for those that do evil things — there are no moral equivalencies here.  I am merely trying to find my way through a troubling problem.  Why does evil exist and how is it manifested?

How do good people go bad?  Nature or nurture?  I am not the first to ponder these questions, nor will I be the last.  The world is a fearsome and complicated place.  Perhaps the answer to what constitutes evil lies somewhere near Justice Potter Stewart’s opinion on hard-core pornography — that it is hard to define but “I know it when I see it.”  (An opinion he later professed to regret.)

This is not to say that evil is in the eye of the beholder.  It is to say that some things are universally considered evil and other things may be subject to motivation and context.  Some profess that all war is evil.  Evil things happen in war, but the necessary aspect of many wars (not all) does not inherently make them evil.

I have grappled with this for a long time and have no good conclusion.  I hold to my basic premise that humans are born good and want to do the right things with their lives.  I am challenged in resolving that outlook with the day-to-day evidence to the contrary in our lives.


3 Comments on “In Search Of Evil”

  1. Mike West says:

    Tom– interesting piece, as yours all are…thanks for taking the time to initiate the discussion. Like you, I think people are inherently good, with the few (or sadly not-so-few) psychopaths on the fringe, some of whom reach positions of great influence on others. But in a more “here and now” sense, something that really, REALLY bothers me is the films I’ve seen, of both Muslim kids AND Jewish (Hebrew?) kids, each in their schools and both starting at very early ages. bobbing and weaving and essentially screaming the lesson at hand, in their grotesque efforts to memorize the day’s lesson and by doing so, please their teachers. This is as close to “brain washing” as I’ve ever seen in a “peacetime” situation, and like I say, it’s way beyond “bothersome”; it’s horrible. The teachers know fully well that they are creating little automatons who will obey unquestionably and unflinchingly later (when called upon to do hideous things.) This is simply sick, and to know that two of the world’s “great” religions (LOTS of cynicism in THAT term) practice it tells me just about all I need to know about them.

    • Tom says:

      So are you saying that they are being taught to be evil or that religion is evil? Or just that you find it troublesome. Many would argue that bias, discrimination and hate are all taught traits, especially if one believes that people are naturally good.

      • Mike West says:

        Does it bother only me to know that with the exception of disease, I suspect more people have died in the name of religion than any other cause? Doesn’t ANYONE else find that just a little bizarre (and troubling????)

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